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Terror on the High Seas

Terror on the High SeasFletcher School experts comment on the rise of Somali piracy, brought into the spotlight by the kidnapping and rescue of an American merchant ship captain last month.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.04.09] When U.S. Navy snipers shot and killed Somali pirates holding American merchant vessel captain Richard Phillips hostage, a drama that seized the nation came to a close. However, piracy off the coast of Africa continues and in recent years has reached record levels. According to the International Maritime Bureau's Piracy Reporting Centre, "the 2008 statistics for ship hijackings and crews taken hostage surpass all figures recorded by the PRC since 1991." Experts from The Fletcher School say the problem of piracy is deep rooted and has no easy answer.

"The situation is so much more complex than it might appear to most people. We're treating the symptoms at this time," Jamie Lynn De Coster, a Navy lieutenant and Fletcher MALD student who has served on pirate patrol boats off the coast of Africa, told Boston PBS affiliate WGBH-TV's "Greater Boston."

According to policy experts, the root of the problem is the continued instability and economic woes in Somalia. The country ranks at the top of the State Department's list of "failed states," defined as nations in which the central government is no longer in control and cannot provide basic services such as water, infrastructure and law and order. Such failed nations often breed terrorism and other problems, including piracy.

"Piracy seems to be an easy way to make money," says The Fletcher School's Alfred Rubin, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Law.

Rubin, whose 1998 book "The Law of Piracy" addresses issues of international law and piracy, says that uncertainty surrounding the jurisdiction of nations when it comes to prosecuting pirates-since the Somali government is not trying them-makes it difficult to try suspects in a court of law.

According to Rubin, the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea "defines piracy as any illegal act of depredation, but it doesn't say what law makes the act illegal. There is no international definition of piracy as such," Rubin told the Associated Press that the last major pirate prosecution in the U.S. was in 1885, following the attack on the American ship Ambrose Light.

The problem goes beyond rogue thieves with speedboats and guns, however. According to De Coster, the ransom money that pirates earn is not just funding their illegal activities but is actually being invested in Somali infrastructure-such as schools and buildings-that the beleaguered Somali government is unable to provide.

"There's a huge industry building up around this piracy, so it makes it even more complex because now social structures are forming," De Coster told "Greater Boston."

In an op-ed for The New Straits Times Online, Fletcher Professor Emeritus W. Scott Thompson wrote that efforts to aid state-building in Somalia and curb piracy are hindered by the fact that the nation has the longest seacoast in Africa and is surrounded by countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, which "aren't exactly paragons of order themselves."

"It is true that the threat truly won't die down as long as Somalia remains a failed state. But on that we're talking about a long hard slog," he wrote. In the meantime, Thompson argued, more aggressive measures must be taken to curtail the threat pirates pose to international shipping.

"It's time to focus on the perpetrators, and make punishment more predictable and visible," he said. "'Let the monsters swing in that very rough part of the world-it's about the only policy that will gain respect."

Some experts argue that greater coordination is needed between international bodies. Bjoern Seibert, a 2008 Fletcher School graduate and research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote that independent missions by NATO and the EU to patrol the Gulf of Aden may be counterproductive.

"The two separate missions won't cooperate as they should. They will needlessly duplicate already expensive effort, and the resulting disarray might even give pirates the upper hand," Seibert wrote in the post, which was later cited in an article on the topic by Time. "The EUand NATO must decide what their true goal is in the Gulf of Aden: to end piracy or to win top honors for military strength. If they choose the prior, they should consolidate their separate efforts into a single operation."

Another question is how merchant fleets should protect themselves. When pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama, the crew was unarmed, a standard amongst merchant vessels thatDe Coster says is unlikely to change.

"The shipping community is concerned that arming crews will escalate violence, putting the crew and ship in more danger," she told the Cape Cod Times, noting that industry experts would prefer improvements to patrols, detection of approaching vessels and protection of merchant fleet vessels.

Experts say that bolstering state-building activities in Somalia could help curb piracy.
"What we need to do is reinforce the central government that we have recognized as an international community, give them the capacity and tools to take control of their country," De Coster told "Greater Boston."

These measures, while they may aid merchant fleets in the short-term, may not do a lot to alleviate the threat for the long-term, says De Coster.

"There are some who say that until the root problem is addressed, there will always be Somali pirates," she told the Cape Cod Times.

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